Youth hockey game leads to adult spectator fight—is the league liable?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

From Pink v. Rome Youth Hockey Association, a New York high court case from Wednesday:

In November 2006, defendant [the volunteer-run nonprofit Rome Youth Hockey Association] rented a local arena owned by the City of Rome to host a hockey tournament for 13-year-old players. Approximately 50-75 spectators attended the game between Rome and Whitestown. Both teams belonged to their respective youth hockey associations and both associations were part of USA Hockey, the national governing organization.

During the game, several on-ice fights broke out between the players, who received penalties and in some cases were ejected from the game. The referee also ejected the Whitestown coach for throwing an object onto the ice. The spectators, mostly family members of the players, engaged in yelling and name calling.

The game concluded without any physical altercation in the stands. After the game was over, two female spectators got into a fight in the stands and a melee quickly ensued as several others, including plaintiff Raymond Pink, stepped in to break up the fight. Matthew Ricci, the brother of one of the two female spectators involved in the fight, struck plaintiff causing him to sustain a head injury. Ricci subsequently pled guilty to criminal assault. The two female spectators pled guilty to disorderly conduct.

Pink sued the Rome Youth Hockey Association, the Whitestown Youth Hockey Association, the city, Ricci, and the other brawlers; the lawsuit against the Rome Association rested on the theory that it "owed a duty to protect plaintiff from criminal assault," and "was negligent in failing to enforce the USA Hockey's 'Zero-Tolerance' policy," which "required on-ice officials to seek to remove spectators from the game for use of obscene or vulgar language or for threatening or using physical violence." The trial court let the case go forward, because "tensions between the spectators essentially put defendant on notice of the need to enforce the Zero-Tolerance policy," and, "by failing to enforce the policy, defendant 'may have violated a duty [it] assumed.'" "The court also held Ricci's actions did not absolve defendant of liability. Plaintiffs subsequently settled with the City of Rome, Ricci, and several other individual defendants."

But the high court held that the Rome association was not liable:

With respect to landowners and leaseholders, there is a "duty to control the conduct of third persons on their premises when they have the opportunity to control such persons and are reasonably aware of the need for such control." That duty includes "minimiz[ing] foreseeable dangers on their property," including "foreseeable criminal conduct." …

The scope of a duty "is defined by past experience and the 'likelihood of conduct on the part of third persons … which is likely to endanger the safety of the visitor,'" and "is limited to risks of harm that are reasonably foreseeable." … On this record, the criminal assault on plaintiff was not a reasonably foreseeable result of any failure to take preventive measures. … The behavior of the fans, however inappropriate, certainly did not create the risk that failure to eject any specific spectator would result in a criminal assault, particularly since such an assault had never happened before.

Plaintiff argues that defendant's failure to enforce the Zero-Tolerance policy by ejecting spectators constitutes independent evidence of negligence. The policy provides that "the on-ice official" will remove spectators using "obscene, racial or vulgar language" from the game. However, the "violation of a[n] [organization]'s internal rules is not negligence in and of itself," and where an internal policy exceeds "the standard of ordinary care," it "cannot serve as a basis for imposing liability." Nor did the policy demonstrate that defendant was on notice of the likelihood of criminal assaults since a "general awareness" of incidents nationwide does not establish foreseeability here. …